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Laurie Gillman’s neighborhood bookstore closed in 2009. She’d lived on Capitol Hill for 25 years, and she could tell her community was not taking the news well. “After a year of saying, ‘Why doesn’t anyone open a bookstore?’ I realized no one was going to do it,” says Gillman.
She decided to open her own, and now East City Bookshop is coming up on its two-year anniversary. “Without a bookstore, how can you say you’re a really good neighborhood?” she asks.
So many local bookstores are cropping up across D.C. that you can go from Anacostia to H Street NE, only visiting new bookstores, and hit most large neighborhoods. Include legacy stores like Politics and Prose and you can nearly map the whole city, jumping from bookstore to bookstore, browsing a variety of specially-curated selections of books. Recently-opened book stores in the District have focused on being hyper-local, carrying works that specifically reflect their communities.
For D.C.’s independent bookstores, part of being hyper-local means carrying titles by the city’s authors. And in an effort to cultivate a community of writers, this new generation of independent stores is developing methods for connecting readers to the authors and poets of the District.
Acclaimed young adult authorJason Reynolds is a patron of East City Bookshop, partially because he lives close by. According to Gillman, just having the author spend time in the store, where his own books are on the shelves, shapes the way that people think about East City Bookshop. “It’s more and more about being hyper-local and making people feel at home,” she says.
Across the river in Anacostia, MahoganyBooks asked Reynolds to speak at their grand opening. Mahogany is the first bookstore to be opened in Anacostia in 20 years. Along with the promise of books on the African diaspora—books that spoke to an audience they had cultivated over 10 years as an online bookseller—owners Derrick and Ramunda Young also invited local authors to speak.
“We wanted to figure out how we could bring out local writers and local editors and have them be in the space together,” says Ramunda Young. “Everyone is looking for an area where they can find support.”
Focusing on their direct impact to the community, the Youngs have started calling themselves social-preneurs, bringing back a familial attitude that used to be supplied by D.C.’s tradition of independently owned bookstores. “I remember Caravan, Crown bookstores; I worked at Karibu,” says Derrick Young. “I had access to these small community bookstores that helped to define these neighborhoods.” To that end, from the start MahoganyBooks partnered with Duende District, a pop-up bookstore that specializes in books written by people of color.
Angela Maria Spring invented Duende District. She created a bookstore that could operate without having a brick and mortar location, and currently splits her week between the upper floor of BloomBars in Columbia Heights and MahoganyBooks, where she curates and runs a portion of the store. She recently opened a new location open now through early July at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria. “I’m able to go anywhere,” she says.
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A year ago Spring left her job at Politics and Prose with hopes of increasing representation for writers of color in the city. Now her store is becoming a major player in D.C.’s independent bookstore scene. She frequently hosts local poets and writers as well as author-led writing workshops in English and in Spanish. Recently, through a collaboration with nonprofit literary organization Pen Faulkner, Duende District hosted Howard University Professor and writer Natalie Hopkinson to talk about her book, A Mouth is Always Muzzled: Six Dissidents, Five Continents, and the Art of Resistance.
For Spring, the goal is to be able to influence which books publishing houses produce. “I’d love to carry your books; are they written by people of color?” Spring tells publishers who call the store. “That’s when you see how they have been thinking about [race] and you start a conversation.”
In Petworth, Upshur Street Books hosts a summer long program in partnership with the Slipform Poetry Workshop, a program through the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Younger writers work to produce a chapbook—a small, usually handmade book of poetry or fiction—and release them at an event at the store. Upshur Street Books is treating this release with the same respect as any other book release event.
“It’s important for writers, particularly young and new writers, to think that bookstores are porous,” says Katie Presley, the buyer at Upshur Street Books. “We don’t want someone to think, ‘My book will only be in a bookstore when I’ve made it’.”
Carrying handmade books and zines along with traditionally-published books by D.C. writers allows Upshur books to expand the expectation of what you can pick up at a bookstore, and gives shoppers a better look at what the Petworth community is producing.
On H Street, the coming-soon signs for a new bookstore hung for almost a year as the owners crafted their plan of action, and following a successful Christmas pop-up, Jake Cumsky-Whitlock and his business partner Scott Abel opened their doors to Solid State Books. After departing from Kramerbooks, a Dupont Circle mainstay, the two planned to take advantage of an evolving H Street.
“We want to make it so parents can come in with their kids and let them loose there while they browse,” says Cumsky-Whitlock. His son goes to school nearby, and he imagines the kids who get their start reading and enjoying books early will grow up to be the local writers of the city.
“D.C. is a great town to be a young writer in,” says Cumsky-Whitlock. “In a town with less of an independent bookstore presence or book event presence, it would be much more difficult … It behooves ourselves to try and promote other bookstores. It reflects well on the city as a whole.”
Now with over thirty years in the district, Politics and Prose seems like the gold standard for what a D.C. independent bookstore can become. When the late Carla Cohen lost her job working for President Jimmy Carter, she founded Politics and Prose, which would go on to be the go-to spot for a Washington insider’s tell-all memoir release party and for every traveling fiction author to speak. Now Politics and Prose has expanded to a new location at The Wharf, and plans to open a third at Union Market later this year.
“We were considering quite a few locations, identifying areas of D.C. that were underserved,” says Jon Purves, former director of marketing and publicity. “There was an existing community in Southwest that didn’t really have access to a bookstore. There was all the land that was being redeveloped.”
Politics and Prose runs a quarterly literary journal, District Lines, along with a vanity publishing service. Purves sees a future for bookstores that carry more work by self-published authors. Being able to give a slight push to a book without involving big publishers has helped put local stories on the shelves at Politics and Prose. Purves mentions the book Slugg, a self published account of writer Tony Lewis Jr.’s life as the son of a D.C. kingpin, which has become one of the store’s highest selling books. Purves says self-published books find their way to Politics and Prose specifically because readers want them there.
“We were creating a bookstore that reflected the community, so we listened to what the local residents wanted to see from us,” he says.
This story has been updated to reflect the location of the Torpedo Factory Art Center.